The Five Existential Risks That Global Leaders Are Discussing at the World Economic Forum

A pre-forum report lays out a grim vision of the future, one rife with acidic oceans, rogue geoengineers, human cyborgs, and aliens.

We quite likely will have to geoengineer our way out of climate change, but what happens if a billionaire decides to do it on his own by floating fart gas out of his yacht

How we choose to address such philosophical quandaries as "What will happen when we discover alien life?" and "What morality allows for a solution to overpopulation?" will be decided in part by the persuasive pitches of researchers looking for funding, and the pocketbooks of rich people looking to make a profit, when the two collide at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland today.

The forum is a non-profit foundation committed to improving the state of the world. One way to do that is to host a big conference once a year that connects business people with academics, politicians, and other thought leaders. To stimulate discussion, the forum releases a series of reports before the conference contemplating things like green economy investment, the global gender gap, international competitiveness.

The most intriguing report this year deals with global risks and includes a short list of worrisome "X factors," which the forum describes as "emerging concerns of possible future importance and with unknown consequences" and "hatching grounds for potential future risks." It's essentially a list of generalized conspiracy theories carefully situated in the grey space between the known and unknowns of potentially threatening human-driven environmental phenomena. The five X factors mentioned are:

1. "Runaway Chain Reaction" of Climate Change: The report calls for deeper research into the theory that, as the ice caps continue melting at an alarming rate, global warming will reach a "tipping point" from which the Earth's ecology will be "fundamentally disrupted." Taking that into account, we should be thinking about "how best to strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to cope as Earth's climate auto-pilot mercilessly hurtles us towards a new and unknown equilibrium."

2. Significant Cognitive Enhancement, a.k.a. "Superhuman Abilities": Hold onto your adamantium butts, X-Men fans. What if steroids become standard not only in professional sports, but in normal life too? What if a person on steroids was also popping Ritalin and fitted with retinal implants and magnets on their skulls? Why, they'd be like a super-person!  Medical and technological breakthroughs around the corner are sure to enhance our bodies and minds, begging the question, "Will it be ethically accepted for the world to divide into the cognitively-enhanced and unenhanced?"

3. Rogue Deployment of Geoengineering: What if the power of the world's volcanoes were to be hijacked by a rogue state or vigilante mastermind? The possibility exists for a self-righteous entity determined to curb global warming to one day inject sulfur into the atmosphere, a move some scientists think would refract sun rays and create for humans a kind of global thermostat. But what of the risks to agriculture and other industries? 

4. Costs of Living Longer: The report takes medicinal breakthroughs of the 20th and 21st centuries and flips them on their head to address global overpopulation. "Are we setting up a future society that must struggle to cope with a mass of arthritic, demented and, above all, expensive elderly who are in need of long-term care and palliative solutions?" One way to help us avoid that reality is to work people longer and harder by raising the retirement age, the report suggests.

5. Discovery of Alien Life: Seeing as how space travel is becoming a commercial endeavor, the chances of us bumping into aliens in outer space is "increasingly conceivable," the report says. And there's an important philosophical question that would come with such a discovery: "What would be the effects on...humanity’s self-image?"

What the report points out is that these sci-fi-ish questions, and many more, are actually taking shape on the horizon and will have to be dealt with sooner rather than later. Some, like the ethics of bioenhancement and millionaires dabbling in geoengineering, are things we're already dealing with. Others, like bioengineering more efficient humans to combat climate change, are potentially on the horizon. These are the existential questions we're currently facing, and they're what the world's economic leaders have met together to discuss in Davos. Remember folks: You can't keep the economy running if the world collapses.